In Perpetual Purgatory…
It was never easy splitting bilateral beliefs in God. School and home. Methodist. Catholic. That was the great divide. Educated within the confines of Catholicism, born and raised Methodist. Every Sunday, with freedom from Indulgences, saints and the proposed 8th Wonder of the Ancient World, transubstantiation—I downed my shot of Welch’s and Wonder bread, the symbolic body and blood, without the slightest of hesitations.
But every Monday morning I was born again, born and ready to face my proverbial demons. Catholicism. Every Friday I escaped it, if only a temporary reprieve, for Monday I’d come to face it again. My parents, hell-bent on giving their children the education and discipline they deserve insisted upon the parochial school system. And when it came to discipline, The Prayer Journal, the pause in lecture for personal reflection, was the bane of sixth grade existence. A private diary of sorts—private, that is, between me and God and the sadist behind the podium. Filling the pages of our respective marbled composition books until our premature hands perspired, we awaited our judgment. Our descriptions of the Homily were too short, our prayer requests too contrived. Honestly, I’m rather surprised the teacher never asked exactly how much of our parents’ hard earned paycheck was stuffed into the church envelope that week.
The need for a middleman. That was one of my biggest gripes with Catholicism. The priest selling Hail Marys in exchange for a golden ticket to the great beyond. The saints and their legendary stories of temptation and triumph, redemption and reward. The sixth grade teacher reading over my shoulder, reminding me to dot my i’s and cross my t’s when I write to Christ.
So it comes as no surprise that I developed a strong contempt for Catholicism by the time I reached high school. Eight long years of being told I am wrong. Eight long years of administration pleading for my family’s conversion in hopes of saving money on the tuition for non-Catholic students (no mention of saving our souls, mind you). And eight long years of painstaking memorization of the rites and rituals in a religion in which my parents’ wallet was welcome, but I, in fact, was not.
Four more years of Catholic education to go, and by this point it didn’t take long for others to take notice of my exclusion from the norm. I remember one instance in particular, one day that especially marked our religious debacle. It was that time again, where every member of the audience stands and silently processes to the front for a piece of The Body they’ve been hearing so much about. The seemingly endless line for Communion wraps around the auditorium, right on cue. And stepping aside, as I’ve done for years, I slip by the line. That’s right. The ritual which I studied, committed to memory, and was tested upon, is a “closed communion.” Not a card-carrying Catholic? Not getting into the postmortem party. I excuse myself past the stragglers to find myself nose-to-nose with one of Archbishop Ryan’s most revered religion teachers. Here is what transpired:
Get in line for Communion.
I’m not Catholic.
Get in line for Communion.
I am NOT Catholic.
Get in line…
JESUS CHRIST! I’m not Catholic. Ok? I’m not Catholic and I don’t appreciate this harassment.
Red in the face, he turns away, embarrassed for causing a scene in the middle of the Mass. I storm out of the auditorium and up to the Journalism classroom to get an early start for our morning meeting. Looking back, I can’t say that the Catholic education I received was at a complete loss. I learned a lot about myself. My ability to persevere, my desire to constantly question the norm and more importantly, I’ve learned not to trust anyone–especially men throwing get-out-of-hell-free cards at the feet of its sniveling confessors, begging mercies from the middleman.
This past May, after twelve years of debates and distrust within the Catholic education system, my cynicism was finally justified. Father Charles Newman, disgraced principle of Archbishop Ryan high school, was sentenced three to six years in prison. Once a figurehead and focal point of virtue and academic excellence, Newman was convicted of stealing nearly one million dollars from the school, funding which was, in part, alleged hush money to his victims of sexual molestation.
Of course I’m not under the impression that every man of the cloth is a sexual predator or that every religion teacher relishes her role as God’s mouthpiece in the classroom. But when NBC news reports that more than 40 priests in 50 years have been accused of sexual misconduct with a minor in the Philadelphia Archdiocese alone, it is not an entirely unfounded concern. Lip service rituals, tithing away in hope of salvation, while children suffer silently under the hands of those who sell the sacraments. Closed mouths, open wallets as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.
Driving by my old grade school, mere minutes from home, memories of the hostilities faced flood forth to present day. In questioning my beliefs in church, state and everything in between, I can honestly say that I no longer identify with organized religion of any creed or denomination. And yet the scripture verse inscribed on that elementary school never fails to strike a resonating chord.
“Let the little children come to me…”
What are the little children coming to learn? Who is teaching them from behind the podium? And who is preaching from behind the pulpit?